Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

16.
The Report on Public Credit

With a new and untried Constitution,
a crushing burden of debt, and two states still out of the union, it might
well have seemed advisable for the government to feel its way cautiously
toward the "more perfect union" envisaged by the framers of the Constitu
tion. James Madison, for one, believed that in order to establish the gov
ernment firmly in the affections of the policy, it was essential that the ad
ministration adopt a mild and conciliatory policy. The Bill of Rights
represented his contribution to the spirit of amity.

In The Federalist, Hamilton had given the impression that he, too, was resigned to moving slowly toward his objectives. Acknowledging that the union was fundamentally federal in nature, he declared that "'tis time only that can mature and perfect so compound a system, can liquidate the meaning of all the parts, and can adjust them to each other in a harmonious and consistent WHOLE." He had frequently made light of the fear that the federal government would aggress upon the states: content with its powers of commerce, finance, peace and war, he contended, it would be under no temptation to invade the powers reserved to the states, because such powers "would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or the splendor of the national government."

And yet Hamilton was not a man to wait for time to effect the consummation he devoutly wished--the triumph of the national government over the states. He had observed that the Constitution was "a fabric which can hardly be stationary, and which will retrograde if it cannot be made to advance." Neither the national government nor the states could afford to stand still, for a constitutional equilibrium was unthinkable between sovereign powers engaged in a life-and-death struggle for power. 1

Some nationalists took comfort in the thought that the Constitution had created "a great Oak which is to reduce them [the states] to paltry shrubs," but Hamilton feared that for this very reason the states would not rest until they had hewn down the monarch of the forest. He was certain in his own mind that the only way to prevent them from doing so was to lay the ax to the root of state sovereignty. Nothing that had occurred in the United

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